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Sarah Louise
Deeper Woods Noel Gardner , May 18th, 2018 07:45

Like a lot of great leftfield folk, this album understands rich traditions and knows how to experiment with them

Sarah Louise Henson was half responsible for one of 2017’s most dazzling albums, the self-titled debut by House And Land. A duo of Henson and Sally Anne Morgan, who also plays in wyrd-bluegrass exponents the Black Twig Pickers, House And Land’s spin on old-timey American folk music – illuminating its parallels to the drones of 1960s minimalism, or Indian classical modes – was a quiet, brilliant jewel. I’d avoid opening a review of an album by talking at such length about a different one, but for the feeling that House And Land was so criminally unsung.

Pleasingly, the duo’s label Thrill Jockey have also picked up Deeper Woods, the North Carolinian Henson’s third solo album as Sarah Louise. Her previous brace, released on short-run American folk imprints, were predominantly instrumental guitar exercises; each of the seven songs here features singing, and indeed ‘Fire Pink And Milkweed’, which closes Deeper Woods, is an a cappella number where Henson shares fine, yearning vocal harmonies with… herself. Contrary to the rustic feel (I’d say ‘artisan’ if I didn’t think the word now provoked instant negativity) given off by her playing and aesthetic, this album benefits from ample digital assistance: vocal and guitar parts were layered, spliced and tweaked before a select list of guests, including H&L bandmate Morgan, added their talents.

So, like a lot of great leftfield folk music of multiple eras, Deeper Woods demonstrates tangible respect for tradition without being hidebound by it. ‘The Field That Touches My House’ is Henson’s starkest kiss-off to acoustic convention, its instrumentation a posse of synths which reveal their melodies with player piano-like care, but whose plangent burble makes no disguise of their artifice. Its odd combination of depth and guilelessness reminds me of Antony & The Johnsons’ I Am A Bird Now, and could appeal to a similarly sized audience.

Elsewhere, there are suggestions that the Sarah Louise project might later grow into a larger, multifaceted ensemble concern. ‘Up On The Ridge’, the album’s longest song at seven and a half minutes, adds both Emmalee Hunnicutt’s cello and the jazzy drums of Thom Ngyuen to fashion great disquiet; Henson works with an especially high register here, splicing prime Pentangle with their mid-00s torch-carriers such as Espers. ‘On Nights When I Can’t Sleep’ is comparably lengthy and features some of the album’s most challenging instrumental parts – cello tunings that sound like Chinese folk being played backwards; Robbie Basho-type patterns that sound like the musical equivalent of deep tissue massage – alongside a vocal sporting a Sandy Denny-like high and lonesomeness.

Deeper Woods comes wholly recommended to fans of House And Land, likewise the reverse. While the two projects recall differing subsets of folk music history, they both sound relevant and vital, no matter how many decades back they reach.